An early birthday gift of a replica mid-eighteenth century globe depicting the best cartographic knowledge of the era, and the arrival of my thirtieth birthday, got me thinking just how much the geography of our cramped little planet remains in flux even today.
Dating to the time when calculations were being made measure longitude at sea in a bid to help direct shipping, this gentleman’s desk globe marks a steady progress to understanding the world around us. Its original was shaped out of papier mâché only two hundred and fifty years after Europeans first arrived in the Americas.
It was a time when Europe’s empires were making claim to everything from tiny Pacific islands to massive tracts of land in Africa. While Europe and North America are recognisable as the continental masses we know today, the further away I trace my finger along the globe’s surface, the more inaccurate the map becomes. The east coast of New Holland (Australia) stops short abruptly of its true location, and a simple near vertical line in the southern hemisphere marks the western coast of New Zealand. Like its neighbour Australia, the green shades of land dwindling away unconvincingly, into the Pacific to the east.
Since the original globe’s construction our geographic knowledge could be said to have evolved beyond anything our eighteenth century selves would recognition. Even with over sixty years of satellite imagery we are still discovering unknown regions of our planet, such as Mozambique’s ‘Google forest’ discovered in 2005. Even if we had exhausted every last discovery yet to be made, our political boundaries seem set to continue changing.
At its founding in 1945 the United Nations had a membership list of 51 countries. As empires granted independence to their colonies membership rose. In Britain’s case, independence was gradually granted to around one third of the world’s total population, forming somewhere in the region of 40 newly independent states.
The 1990s also saw the culmination of a series of wars and political agreements that led to the fragmentation of nations, often termed Balkanisation after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Where the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia once stood, there are now seven states, founded largely on ethnic grounds.
With South Sudan joining the United Nations in 2011 (its independence from Sudan the result of another war of ethnicity), today the organisations membership list stands at 193, nearly three times the number of its original members. Going one better, FIFA, the football world governing body, claims membership by 209 national football associations.
The study and collection of maps and globes in whatever form is therefore as much about understanding our own culture, psychology, and identity in the present as it is recording the history of the world’s fallen empires.